Among Christians, the word ‘pastoral’ is often applied to warm, caring involvement in the lives of others—providing practical help or a listening ear in life’s struggles. Loving engagement in the lives of others is a vital ministry, and we betray our Lord and his command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ if it is lacking.
But for those involved in vocational Christian ministry, is there more to pastoral work?
What is pastoral ministry?
To ‘pastor’ means to ‘shepherd’. In Biblical times a shepherd spent his day with his sheep, ensuring they were well fed and kept from harm. Those entrusted with the care of God’s ‘sheep’ engage in a similar task—gathering the lost into the fold and aiding their growth to maturity in Christ.
There are three key aspects to this. First, the flock needs feeding. The word of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, does that. Paul knew that it was the message of Christ that grew Christians, and his own ministry was built around that—proclaiming, teaching and warning so that he might ‘present everyone mature in Christ’ (Col 1:28).
Second, the pastor prays for his people. In Acts 6 the apostles turned waiting upon tables over to others so that they might devote themselves to prayer and preaching. Paul tells the Colossians that he hasn’t stopped praying for them (Col 1:9) and urges them to devote themselves to prayer (Col 4:2), recognising that God in his grace takes account of our prayers as he works out his sovereign purposes (see 2 Cor 1:10-11).
Finally, the pastor must model godly living. As Paul urged Timothy, ‘set the believers an example in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity’ (1 Tim 4:12). According to Paul, godly character and faithfulness to the gospel message—rather than giftedness, ministry strategies or communication skills—are the non-negotiable qualities for those who oversee God’s people (1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9).
What does good pastoral care look like?
This understanding of pastoral ministry means it involves more than attention to physical and emotional needs. You may have heard it said of a Christian minister that, ‘He is a great teacher, but he is not very pastoral’. But the New Testament never divides these—every pastoral issue is also a theological one. When people are struggling, Christian love will drive us to cook meals and sit and listen as they share their troubles. But it will also move us to remind them that we rest secure in God’s arms and that Christ really is our adequacy in the storms of life.
Yet we must not think that sharing some Bible verses will suffice. Gospel comfort loses something if spoken from a distance or without compassion—for ‘Hurting hearts have no ears’. Good pastoral care will mean deep involvement in others’ lives. That Paul not only shared the gospel, but also his life (1 Thes 2:8) was critical to his effectiveness.
We must also remember that pastoral care is necessary for every believer, whether they are experiencing difficulties in life or not. God’s desire is to see all progress to maturity in Christ, so all need pastoring.
How does Moore train students in pastoral care?
The entire Moore program is designed to produce effective pastors. By learning in community we share in each other’s lives, see the Christian life modelled, support and pray for each other. There is a breadth to the curriculum, but at its heart is a key goal—to deepen students’ knowledge of God. This is not knowing about God, but knowing God personally in a way that shapes character and life. Knowledge of God produces pastors who serve Jesus Christ and his people, know God’s truth well and faithfully proclaim it, and humbly call upon him in prayer.
Moore also recognises the importance of teaching fundamental skills such as listening and conflict resolution. Students need to be aware of difficult issues encountered in pastoral ministry, including sexuality, grief, and depression. Our aim is not to produce counsellors, but pastors who know when to refer someone for professional help and can provide appropriate practical and spiritual support themselves.
C.H. Spurgeon said, ‘As a man is, so is his work’. A theological college cannot prepare students for every circumstance they will face in pastoral ministry. But at Moore our aim under God is to produce graduates of godly character who have the motivation and skill to appropriately care for all they encounter in their ministry.
Keith Condie, Dean of Students, Lectures in Ministry and Church History, Moore College